The first third of the film is told from the main character's, Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), or Jean-Do as his friends call him, first person perspective. The film opens as Bauby wakes from his three-week coma in a hospital in Berck-sur-Mer, France. After an initial rather over-optimistic analysis from one doctor, a neurologist explains that he has locked-in syndrome, an extremely rare condition in which the patient is almost completely physically paralyzed, but remains mentally normal. At first, the viewer primarily hears Bauby's "thoughts" (he thinks he is speaking but no one hears him), which are inaccessible to the other characters (who are seen through his one functioning eye).
A speech therapist and physical therapist try to help Bauby become as functional as possible. Bauby cannot speak, but he develops a system of communication with his speech and language therapist by blinking his left eye as she reads a list of letters to laboriously spell out his messages, letter by letter.
Gradually, the film's restricted point of view broadens out, and the viewer begins to see Bauby from "outside", in addition to experiencing incidents from his past, including a visit to Lourdes. He also fantasizes, imagining beaches, mountains, the Empress Eugénie and an erotic feast with one of his transcriptionists. It is revealed that Bauby had been editor of the popular French fashion magazine Elle, and that he had a deal to write a book (which was originally going to be based on The Count of Monte Cristo but from a female perspective). He decides that he will still write a book, using his slow and exhausting communication technique. A woman from the publishing house with which Bauby had the original book contract is brought in to take dictation.
The new book explains what it is like to now be him, trapped in his body, which he sees as being within an old-fashioned deep-sea diving suit with a brass helmet, which is called a scaphandre in French, as in the original title. Others around see his spirit, still alive, as a "Butterfly".
The story of Bauby's writing is juxtaposed with his recollections and regrets until his stroke. We see the mother of his three children (whom he never married), his children, his mistress, his friends, and his father. He encounters people from his past whose lives bear similarities to his own "entrapment": a friend who was kidnapped in Beirut and held in solitary confinement for four years, and his own 92-year-old father, who is confined to his own apartment, because he is too frail to descend four flights of stairs.
Bauby eventually completes his memoir and hears the critics' responses. He dies of pneumonia ten days after its publication. The closing credits are accentuated by reversed shootings of breaking glacier ice (the forward versions are used in the opening credits), accompanied by the Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros song "Ramshackle Day Parade".Mathieu Amalric as Jean-Dominique Bauby
Emmanuelle Seigner as Céline Desmoulins
Anne Consigny as Claude Mendibil
Marie-Josée Croze as Henriette Durand
Olatz López Garmendia as Marie Lopez
Patrick Chesnais as Dr. Lepage
Max von Sydow as Mr. Bauby Sr.
Isaach De Bankolé as Laurent
Marina Hands as Joséphine
Niels Arestrup as Roussin
Anne Alvaro as Betty
Zinedine Soualem as Joubert
Emma de Caunes as Empress Eugénie
Françoise Lebrun as Madame Bauby
The film was originally to be produced by American company Universal Studios and the screenplay was originally in English, with Johnny Depp slated to star as Bauby. According to the screenwriter, Ronald Harwood, the choice of Julian Schnabel as director was recommended by Depp. Universal subsequently withdrew, and Pathé took up the project two years later. Depp dropped the project due to scheduling conflicts with Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. Schnabel remained as director. The film was eventually produced by Pathé and France 3 Cinéma, in association with Banque Populaire Images 7 and the American Kennedy/Marshall Company, and in participation with Canal+ and Ciné Cinémas.
According to the New York Sun, Schnabel insisted that the movie should be in French, resisting pressure by the production company to make it in English, believing that the rich language of the book would work better in the original French, and even went so far as to learn French to make the film. Harwood tells a slightly different story: Pathé wanted "to make the movie in both English and French, which is why bilingual actors were cast"; he continues that "Everyone secretly knew that two versions would be impossibly expensive", and that "Schnabel decided it should be made in French".
Schnabel said his influence for the film was drawn from personal experience:
"My father got sick and he was dying. He was terrified of death and had never been sick in his life. So he was in this bed at my house, he was staying with me, and this script arrived for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
. As my father was dying, I read Ron Harwood’s script. It gave me a bunch of parameters that would make a film have a totally different structure. As a painter, as someone who doesn’t want to make a painting that looks like the last one I made, I thought it was a really good palette. So personally and artistically these things all came together."
Several key aspects of Bauby's personal life were fictionalized in the film, most notably his relationships with the mother of his children and his girlfriend.
The film received universal acclaim from critics. Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 94%, based on reviews from 165 critics, with the general consensus stated as, "Breathtaking visuals and dynamic performances make The Diving Bell and the Butterfly a powerful biopic." Metacritic gave the film an average score of 92/100, based on 36 reviews.
In a 2016 poll by BBC, the film was listed as one of the top 100 films since 2000 (77th position).
The film appeared on many critics' top ten lists of the best films of 2007.
The film premiered in competition at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival on 22 May, where Schnabel won the Award for Best Director. It was nominated for four Academy Awards, and won a BAFTA award as well as two César Awards. Schnabel also won Best Director at the 65th Golden Globe Awards, where the film won Best Foreign Language Film. Because the film was produced by an American company, it was ineligible for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.